BionX: Electrify Your BikeUtility Cycling - Use Your BicycleXtracycle Bike Cargo Kits, Parts and AccessoriesOrtlieb Bike Bags & PanniersCygoLite Bike Lights: Engineered to ShinePlanet Bike: Better bike products for a better worldBanjo Brothers Affordable Cycling GearChrome Bike Backpacks and Messenger BagsRideKick Electric Powered Bike TrailerMiiR Bottles one4oneCommuter Bike Store Fuji CambridgeBike Bag Shop -- Grocery, Shopping, Market Panniers

Winter Commuting in Alaska: Learning to Ride In the Wind — Real Wind

by Shanna Ladd

Editor’s Note: Ever since her first contribution, “Blizzards and Meth Labs and Bears. Oh my!,” Shanna Ladd has sent me a wealth of information on her experiences winter bike commuting 10 miles into Wasilla, Alaska. It’s way too good to publish in one long post, but I will give away the ending:

To us wussies in milder climates, it may almost seem as though Shanna is performing an extreme stunt — surely she’s sponsored by Red Bull. No. In spite of a harsh learning curve, Shanna concludes that bike commuting has had a net positive impact on her budget, time, health and quality of life. —Ted


This is my first year of commuting by bike full-time, and as such, I am having to learn how to ride my bike in winter weather. The months of October 2012 and November 2012 were a mix of training days followed by beautiful riding days under the clear sky with bright stars and moon.

While this winter has proven to be a very dry, with relatively little snow, my 10-mile commute to work still presents plenty of challenges. I can leave home at -10℉ and end up in Wasilla at 20℉; I can go from a relatively calm home stretch to a category 1 hurricane wind, and all of this in the dark.

This has forced me to evaluate what gear I need to take with me, how to organize and pack, and which routes are best for each condition and how to evaluate trail conditions. Although it has been extremely challenging for a beginner, it is worth the effort.

One major rule: never ask yourself why you are commuting by bike in a winter storm; always ask that after you get home and are sipping a homemade cup of hot cocoa! It can be fun, but it is also a lot of work.

Learning to Ride In the Wind

The view from Shanna's Pugsley

Icy trails re-frozen after a thaw

When our first winter windstorm hit, I left home unprepared. Snow and dirt hammered me. My eyes ran. Dirt stuck and dried on my face. Gusts hit from the side, pushing me off the trail causing me to crash. It was dark and cold. I wondered how I could have possibly been this unprepared.

I knew the forecast but I failed to bring my goggles and balaclava! I tried to keep my scarf around my face but it kept blowing out of place. On the trail I was reminded of the fact that I am human and the weather is one thing I can’t control. I may not be able to control the weather, but I can do my best to be prepared.

Because I am commuting by bike, I have to make it to my destination on time. I can’t scratch. So I made myself a mandatory winter check list for my pack. That way, I wouldn’t end up on the trail without the gear I need.

After making my check list, my commute went much better.

When the wind started howling I wore my balaclava and covered my entire face, put on my goggles and then helmet. It took a little bit to get used to wearing so much, but once I got used to the change, I felt good. My goggles didn’t fog up, I was able to breathe easy and it kept the dirt off my face, out of my mouth and eyes. I didn’t have to deal with a flapping scarf trying to keep it in place.

In fact, with that set up, I was really quite comfortable. Using a balaclava is nice because if it is warm, I can turn it up and use it as a hat; if it is cold or windy, I can pull it over my face for protection. I now do not go anywhere without it. I even take an extra one with me so that when I stop for breakfast I can put a fresh dry one on when I leave.

Often, when I am going to work there is a headwind, while coming home there is a tailwind. So, on the way home the wind is at my back and I fly. I don’t even have to pedal all the way across the parking lot and down the road to the first stop light because the wind blows me there!

However, as the trail winds its way home, I am hit from the side by the strong gusts. As a beginner, I have found that I am not as coordinated as I could be, and have on multiple occasions been blown off the trail, causing me to crash and fall on my knees.

During these stretches where the wind is hitting from the side, I had my crate break off and had to abandon the crate as it blew down the trail at a high speed, my taillight still flashing. I also found myself chasing my pogies down the trail. I’ve had to put my stuff in my pack and throw it on my back.

Shanna Ladd's Custom Pogies

Custom Pogies made from a North Face down jacket from the Salvation Army

Honestly, it was a rough start.

The good new is that with time, it is possible to learn how to ride in challenging weather, whether that is cold, subzero temperatures or hurricane category 1 wind.

I have learned to lean into the wind, to ride on the far side of the trail and allow myself at least five feet of room to blow across the trail, so I avoid ruts or ditches; this in turn prevents crashes.

I’ve also learned that it’s okay to get off and just hold onto the bike until the really strong gusts pass, then get back on and ride.

When I rode home one particular day, I didn’t have to pedal home, I just blew all the way — with brakes on. Truthfully, this was very scary for me because it was very dark and I am not normally speedy. It was fun in a ridiculous kind of way.

How strong was the wind? I only have the word from the weatherman, who spoke of, “wind gusts of up to 80 mph.” I think if the wind truly was 70-80 mph, that must have been when I had to just lay down and hold on.

Palmer, Alaska

Where’s the snow? Blown away by high winds.

I started out commuting by bike just for myself. But when I realized the potential that commuting by bike has for the public with whom I work, and for people I know in my community, my commute became even more important to me.

If I want to be able to recommend commuting by bike as a real solution — a real alternative for people in my community — I need to have a very clear path of what it takes to get there. I can’t suggest to someone that this as a real transportation option or tell them to try something that I do not do nor fully understand. I have to know what my limits are before I can feel right about offering this as a realistic transportation option.

I need to know how many legitimate “calls for help” (i.e. a taxi) I need in one years time. At this point I can say I have needed two days in six months. Those days were the days the wind reached gusts of 60 to 80 miles per hour, and are too extreme for commuting. I think this is reasonable.

A taxi from home to work cost $35 one way; $70 round trip, tip included. This is a huge savings considering I have no vehicle registration, gas, etc.

I used one-and-a-half of those calls for help because I listened to people warning me about weather — and then missed out on what became nice riding days.

Next: “Things don’t always work out as we plan


Shanna Ladd is a car-free bike commuter in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley (a.k.a. “The Mat-Su”), north of Anchorage.

 
Burley nomad 229

20 Responses to “Winter Commuting in Alaska: Learning to Ride In the Wind — Real Wind”

  1. M says:

    Shanna, what type/brand of goggles do you wear?

  2. chunk says:

    Shanna, you shame me. I tuck my tail between my legs and crawl in the car when the winds only reach 25mph.

    Your adventure is quite inspiring

  3. Melissa says:

    Shanna,
    Those pogies look fantastic! Did you make them yourself? Any tips on how to make them from a jacket? Your riding is inspiring, thanks for sharing.

  4. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi M,

    I puchased a pair of Custom Oakley Perscription Goggles and use Optifog with them. But it takes a lot more than just a little drop of Optifog for it to be effective especially as the temperature drops. It also seems to make a difference if I am over dressed and get too hot.

  5. Shanna Ladd says:

    Melissa,

    I am working on putting the pictures together with instructions for the Pogies. I’ll try to finish that Saturday. Then try to find a way to share it.

  6. Joel says:

    Shanna,

    What type of tires have you used on your winter commute? Do you switch tires at a specific point in the year such as temperature or is it more related to when snow and ice will likely appear? Have you used studded tires and if so, do they make a difference?

    The reasons for all the questions are because I have been commuting year round for about 18 months in New Jersey but very little of it has been in snow or ice. The past winter was very mild but we normally get at least a two month window of less than ideal conditions.

    My wife always offers me a ride to the bus park and ride (seven miles each way) when she thinks it is unsafe for me to ride. Over the months, I have been able to convince her that many conditions she thinks of as unsafe are very reasonable with proper preparation.

    Keep the information coming!

  7. Graham says:

    I continue to be impressed with your fortitude! “Hurricane Sailing” is something that we do for fun here on the NC Coast before a big storm hits, but certainly not in sub-zero conditions!

    I’m curious if this year of extreme bicycle commuting has you thinking about a slightly different platform for increased stability and more secure cargo hauling, like a recumbent trike.

    http://lightfootcycles.com/trike-models-overview/

    Something like those, maybe? (Note, I have no affiliation with the company, I just admire their work)

  8. Amy says:

    You are an inspiration! You got a mention today in a session on Bicycle Commuting presented at the university where I work.

  9. Mike says:

    I am such a wuss. Shanna, you are an inspiration.

  10. norm says:

    I am also curious about your tires and your hardware in general. Is there a reason you use a crate instead of basket panniers? (like, lots of mud for example)

  11. norm says:

    (oh n/m answer is in the previous article, thanks!)

  12. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi Melissa,
    here is the basics:
    1. I put the Malamutes and cat outside
    2. I ran a piece of red vapor barrier tape down the center of the back of the coat
    3. I cut the coat down the back. After that I had 2 ‘L’ shapes.
    4. Lap the red tape over the edges so the expensive insulating down does not go everywhere
    5. Sew the L shape closed. I used another piece of vapor barrier tape to seal the seam. It is what we have used in our cabin walls.
    6. Then, what was once the sleeve of the coat can be pulled over the handle bar of the bike and the body of the coat is where you can put your hands in.
    7. I cut an old Elizabethan Dog Collar in half and used the vapor barrier tape to keep the cone in shape and used that to keep the pogie ‘open’.
    Still a work in progress!
    Thank you for your encouragement!

  13. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi Joel,
    I use a set of Dillingers studded tires. Tire pressure is not just a good idea, but critical to achieve “grip”. In Alaska winter weather starts in September and goes thru May. During these months I will encounter ice & snow. September is when it is legal to drive with studded tires and is when I would put studded tires on. I try to be as prepared as possible. Without studs it is at times impossible to ride. I have considered the idea of chains, but the chains for my tires are not “perfected” yet. There are problems with the fit so is not an option now. I hope to have this option next year.

    Preparation has been critical. I like to have things set up so that if the conditions are worse than anticipated I can go with a different option. I try to keep bus/taxi money, a bike lock and cell phone so if things get too difficult I have a back-up plan. This reduces my stress level.

  14. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi Graham,

    The goal of commuting by bike year round has been quite a challenge! I am working on getting my kick-sled-joring option set up. This gives me a very wide base and gives me a lot of control with my feet and hands plus it is fun to have company on the trail!

    I hope to get set up with a big heavy duty trailer for June thru August hauling.

    Those are such awesome looking tricycles!! They might do well in the wind!

  15. Petrus says:

    I used to have a commute of 15ish miles from Tysons to Alexandria, with 300-odd feet decline on the way home, and the winds were often 20-some mph. Those were some of the best commutes, getting blown home!

  16. Joel says:

    Dear Shanna,

    Thank you for the information. I am setting up a second bike strictly for ice/snow conditions. My current bike can handle the rest.

    One last question, (if you are an old fossil like me it will remind you of Peter Faulk in “Columbo”), do you use fenders or do they just ice up from thrown snow and cause problems?

    I might ride in the morning on frozen water to have it thaw by the time I ride home.

    Thank you for sharing with us.

  17. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi Joel,
    I don’t have fenders on my Pugsley at this time but they are on my list to get. I have used goggle to keep water out of my eyes. I have used fenders on my skinny bike. I didn’t have problems with ice/snow accumulating on the fenders when I used the fenders during the previous winter but I park the bikes in my cabin and office.

  18. Shanna Ladd says:

    Hi Norm,

    Tires & Hardware:
    This week we saw torrential rains on top of ice and snow. I will change tires now to include hardware, a $40 box of screws because my Dilliger tires don’t give enough grip. I’d love to have chains but that option is not available. I have Shimano Deore & Tektro on my bike. Everything has held up incredibly well even with numerous mishaps on the trail. Nothing has broken or had to be replaced

  19. Melissa says:

    Shanna,
    Thanks for sharing how you made those awesome pogies! Now I’ll be on the lookout for a suitable coat at the thrift stores. :)
    Melissa

  20. Matt says:

    Hey,

    If you get some serious crosswinds up there and it is relatively desolate maybe you could figure out how to make some kind of kite to take advantage of the wind like these guys did in Australia: http://green.autoblog.com/2013/01/24/giant-kite-evonic-wind-explorer-ev-cross-australia/

Leave a Reply